- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

As Halloween draws near, we Americans naturally get to thinking about pumpkins. But if anyone has a pumpkin fetish, it is the Italians — in particular, the northern Italians, and especially the Venetians.

When I was growing up, my Italian mother made swift use of pumpkins at this time of year, in minestrone and in a stew with garlic and sharp black olives. And we’ve been making tortelli di zucca, fresh pasta squares stuffed with pureed fresh pumpkin and crushed bitter almond cookies, bathed in butter, since I brought the now-famous recipe back from my first trip to Parma several decades ago.

Called “cocozza” in southern Italy, pumpkin is a standard winter vegetable with deep roots in the peasant kitchen. It wasn’t until I was in the Veneto (Venice) during the pumpkin harvest, reaping fresh material for a book about the cooking of Italy’s northeast region, that I realized the gastronomic heights the lowly pumpkin could reach.

In the sparkling, enchanting lagoon that is Venice, the mundane is transformed into the sublime, and the bland flesh becomes a beguiling sweet and sour pumpkin, or pumpkin risotto heady with the fragrance and deep flavors of Amarone wine, or savory pumpkin pie redolent of rosemary, or sultana-studded sweet pumpkin pudding, or feather-light pumpkin fritters under a cloud of confectioners’ sugar.

Like A.J. Liebling, the famous gastronome who described the work of food writers in such bittersweet metaphor (seize the moment, “like a prizefighter’s hours on the road,” he sang), I have made it my business to be in that magical place at this time of year more than once.

Twice, I stayed at an intimate family-run farm and pensione, Azienda delle Garzette, on the Lido, a long, narrow island that separates the lagoon from the sea and for years a chic summer resort. I discovered that, like Venice and the other islands, the Lido was also home to ordinary people who lived and worked there. Among them Salvatore, an expatriate Neapolitan, and his Venetian wife, Renza, worked a little farm that provided virtually all the food and wine they served.

Salvatore’s domain was the gardens, the henhouse and the vineyards, all of which he tended himself, with occasional help from a friend or a relative. Renza’s sphere was the kitchen, which she ran with great precision, always conscious of what the cycle of the seasons would provide for the local families and for lucky foreigners who, like me, had discovered her place.

I could never forget her batter-fried pumpkin blossoms (yes, this is done all over Italy, but here, growing in the salt air of the lagoon, the flowers taste especially good) and handmade tagliatelle with pumpkin blossoms cut into ribbons and tossed in good olive oil, onions and the leaves of young field poppies.

“Zucca,” a term that includes all squashes and gourds, has been cultivated in the Venetian lagoon since before the arrival of the New World varieties cultivated today. There are a few main types, including an elongated zucca called “marina di Chioggia” after its native city near Venice. Another type, “suca baruca” in Venetian dialect, a slightly squashed sphere with bumpy dark green skin and rich orange flesh, is so sweet it is eaten as a confection.

People still remember the days when vendors walked around Venice balancing wooden boards with roasted pumpkin on their shoulders, hawking, “Suca baruca, suca baruca” to eager schoolchildren and anyone else wanting a sugary snack. They are gone, replaced by souvenir peddlers, but pumpkin sellers with their big golden wedges of suca still ply the markets of the Rialto and the Veneto.

The only way to explain the Venetian passion for zucca and its blossoms is that it is one of those foods of heroic proportion, like the potato for the Irish, the corn plant for the Aztecs, or squashes and turkey for our own forebears. These are all foods that have given sustenance when the wolf has been at the door.

Nothing else grew more prolifically without heed to hot weather or rainfall, could be cooked with nary a spice if need be (peel, fry, roast, boil and eat), provided nourishment, satisfied sugar craving, and stayed fresh through the winter. Pumpkin is as much a part of the fabric of the people’s folklore as it is a staple of the Veneto’s kitchen and of our own.

American pumpkins and squashes can be substituted for the richly flavored zuccas of Venice. But a word to the wise: The jack-o’-lantern pumpkin, cucurbita maxima, is bred for size. The biggest one ever, recorded last year by Guinness World Records, weighed in at 1,446 pounds (and rising, since each year pumpkin maniacs out there beat the previous year’s record).

According to “The Internet Shrine and Library for Pumpkins” (www.pumpkinnook.com), where one can keep abreast of developments in the pumpkin marathon, giant pumpkins can grow 35 to 40 pounds per day in their peak growing season.

This is all very well for Halloween tomfoolery but not exactly material for edible pumpkins. Edible types with thick, compact, string-less flesh and sweet, rich flavor include sugar pumpkins, cheese pumpkins, butternut squash, calabaza and Hubbard squash.

Pumpkins are high in vitamin A, potassium and fiber. One cup, pureed, contains 80 calories, 19 grams of carbohydrates, less than 1 gram of fat and 2.4 grams of protein. Perhaps best of all, it is delicious.

Here are some of my favorite Italian pumpkin recipes, brought back from my travels to the Veneto for my book “Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast” (Chronicle Books).

Roasted sweet and sour pumpkin in the style of Chioggia(zucca gialla alla Chioggiana)

Sweet and sour pumpkin can be made a day in advance and keeps well up to three days, chilled.

3 pounds sugar pumpkin, calabaza or butternut squash

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1 cup fresh basil leaves

Peel squash. Slice into wedges and remove seeds. Moisten the surfaces with extra-virgin olive oil. Slip the wedges onto a nonstick or foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in preheated 450-degree oven until tender and nicely browned on the outside, about 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven and allow to cool somewhat.

In the meantime, in a saucepan mix together vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Boil for 5 minutes and allow to cool.

Pour half of the liquid mixture into a deep serving dish. Layer the pumpkin slices in the dish, slipping the basil leaves in between and over the top. Pour the remaining mixture over. Marinate for several hours, chilled. Eat cold or at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 servings. as an appetizer or side dish.

Pumpkin soup(Passato di zucca)

The pumpkin soup of the Veneto is a simple affair of pureed pumpkin cooked with milk.

2 to 3 pounds sugar pumpkin, calabaza or butternut squash

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

8 large shallots or 2 medium onions, grated or minced

8 thin slices fresh ginger root, each about 2 inches in length, peeled

8 cups milk, or as needed

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

Freshly ground white pepper

Fresh mint leaves, torn into small pieces

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and oil the foil. Cut squash in half lengthwise and scrape out and discard the seeds.

Place squash halves, cut sides down, on prepared baking sheet. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven until tender throughout, about 40 minutes. Test for doneness with a sharp knife or thin skewer. It should meet no resistance. Remove from oven and, when cool enough to handle, peel off skin and cut squash into small dice.

In a soup pot, melt butter with olive oil over medium-low heat. Add shallots or onions and saute very gently until thoroughly softened but not at all browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Add diced squash and ginger root and saute to marry the flavors, about 5 minutes.

Now stir in 3 cups milk and cook over low heat until mixture begins to simmer. Remove pot from heat and allow mixture to cool somewhat. Then pass mixture through a food mill, or process in a blender or food processor to puree.

Return puree to the pot, stir in remaining 5 cups milk and simmer for about 12 more minutes to thicken. Add more milk if consistency is too thick (it should be thick enough to coat the spoon) and heat through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into warmed bowls, strew mint over surface and serve at once. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Risotto with pumpkin and walnuts(Risotto di zucca gialla con le noci)

Thanks for this recipe goes to Fabrizio DeVenosa, chef of La Loggia in Bardolino. The big, complex flavor of the Amarone tempers the sweetness of the pumpkin. After using a small amount in the risotto, drink the rest at the table.

About 5 cups meat broth, preferably homemade

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

4 cups peeled, finely diced sugar pumpkin, calabaza or butternut squash

1 large onion, minced

2 cups Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice

cup Amarone wine

Sea salt

Freshly ground white or black pepper

3/4 cup walnuts, blanched, lightly toasted and chopped

Freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Place broth in a saucepan on a burner behind or next to the one on which you will cook the risotto, keeping it hot for the entire cooking time. In a large, wide skillet, warm half of the butter with half of the oil over medium-low heat.

Add the squash and saute until it is nicely colored all over, about 10 minutes. Cover the pan and cook over medium-low heat until thoroughly softened, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and use a fork or a potato masher to mash the cooked squash thoroughly. Keep hot.

Meanwhile, in another ample skillet, warm the remaining butter and oil over medium to medium-low heat. Add onion and saute until it is nicely colored and completely softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice with a wooden spoon to coat and heat it evenly, or until you hear the kernels “click” as you stir, about 3 minutes. Stir in the wine.

When the wine has been fully absorbed and the alcohol has evaporated, after about 1 minute, add a ladleful of the hot broth to the rice and cook and stir until it, too, is absorbed. When half the broth has been used up (and the rice is half cooked), stir in the squash, which must still be hot. Add another ladleful of broth, following the same procedure of ensuring that it is absorbed by the rice before adding more.

Continue to add the hot broth, a ladleful at a time, until the rice is tender, which should take about 25 minutes total. At the end, the risotto should be very moist and virtually runny, and the rice grains should be tender but still firm at the center.

Remove skillet from heat and add salt to taste. Using a spatula, fold in the pepper to taste and half of the walnuts. Transfer the risotto to a warmed, wide, shallow serving bowl, strew the remaining walnuts over the top and sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately, passing additional Grana or Parmigiano at the table. Makes 4 servings.

Julia della Croce is a journalist, food and travel writer, noted authority on Italian cooking and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Veneto: Authentic Recipes From the Italian Northeast” and “Roma: Authentic Recipes From in and Around the Eternal City” (Chronicle Books). For more information, contact www.juliadellacroce.com.



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